9 min read

Life Goes On

Barreling toward the end of the year with timely news, abundant streaming picks, and an exclusive Video of the Week premiere from the iconic composer, performer, and bandleader Carla Bley.
Life Goes On


Carla Bley (Photograph: Klaus Muempher)

I’m trying to keep things brief here, because I’ve got two New York Times articles in progress on my desk right now, and two more queued up behind them. It’s not a bad problem to have, but antithetical to proper Substacking. (Substackery?)

Still, there is news to share. There are so many streaming programs to point out. And there is a Video of the Week for your viewing pleasure. Oh, my, there is a video.

Carla Bley was on my mind already before this week’s special gift dropped into my inbox. Karen Mantler, Bley’s daughter and a sensational composer and performer, had been sharing on her Facebook page incredible photos from the recording sessions for Bley’s epochal Escalator Over the Hill. Anyone unfamiliar with this multifarious masterwork is urged to read a remarkable history by Bley herself, available on Ethan Iverson’s website, Do the Math.

I have a few long-form interviews still waiting in the wings, and I’m spending my spare moments (heh…) trying to organize my labors sufficiently to conduct more. December will be a challenge, I’m not going to lie—but there’s more on the way.

As ever, thank you. On with the show…

Here Is the News

Scene from The Museum of the Lost and Found by Olivia Shortt, presented during the Long Beach Opera 2020 Songbook. (Screenshot: Steve Smith)
  • On November 15, Long Beach Opera – the innovative, resourceful California company that mounted the world-premiere staging of Anthony Davis’s Pulitzer Prize-winning opera Central Park Five, among many other achievements – presented what it termed an UnGala: 2020 Songbook, a two-and-a-half hour live-streamed program hosted by the charismatic countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo. LBO engaged five prominent composers – Davis, Du Yun, Annie Gosfield, David Lang, and George Lewis – to serve as mentors for 20 younger created, each of whom completed a newly commissioned vocal work. Together these pieces comprised a staggering range of practices and persuasions. (I live-tweeted the entire affair, it will surprise no one to learn.) Now, whether you missed it the first time or want to watch it again, you can view the entire stream by making a donation of any amount. Watch a teaser here, and find out how to access the whole show here.
  • The painful losses we’re enduring in 2020 continue to mount, and in the last week alone we’ve lost two creators of substantial magnitude. Noah Creshevsky, a much-loved electroacoustic trailblazer and pedagogue, succumbed to cancer on December 3, while Harold Budd, renowned worldwide as a pianist, composer, and ambient-music progenitor, died from complications of COVID-19 on December 8. I’ll have much more to share about both of these exceptional artists very soon; meanwhile, listen to their music and celebrate their memory.
Maggie Nichols (Photograph courtesy of Café Oto)
  • Takuroku, the online-only record label London’s influential Café Oto launched to help keep artists working during pandemic months, this week notches its 100th release: Creative Contradiction, the first-ever solo album from veteran Scottish singer and improvising vocalist Maggie Nichols. According to the label: “This release, modestly recorded on her computer after teaching herself  how to use Garageband during lock-down, brings forth her doubts, anxieties, loves and desires in a 13-part musical journey. Webbed through piano ballads, playful improvised ditties, stories in English and Gaelic, poetry and multi-layered vocal arrangements, Creative Contradiction feels like a long-overdue catch up with a close friend.” Learn more, listen to a bit, and order here.
  • Experiments in Opera, the maverick collective of composers Jason Cady, Kamala Sankaram, and Aaron Siegel, was poised to blaze new trails in March with Anthony Braxton Theater Improvisations, a world-premiere staging of Braxton’s Compositions Nos. 279-283, mounted as part of the global Braxton75 celebrations. Pandemic put a halt to that production. But on Monday, the company lived up to its name once more with the launch of Aqua Net & Funyuns, a opera in the form of five disparate podcast episodes. Each segment was created by a different composer and librettist (with Cady pulling double duty in one), and all five are linked by Easter Eggs scattered throughout the stories. You can find details and download programs, librettos, and a scavenger-hunt checklist (yup!) here. And if you’re curious to know how this project was assembled during quarantine isolation, this video tells the story.

Video (Premiere) of the Week

Chester is a bit late and looks at his watch and gives an apologetic little bow, then unpacks his instrument and plays a few notes, then dusts it off with his handkerchief and plays a few more. The band looks at him expectantly, and he calls “Old Man Dancing.” He does a little shuffle step and points to himself. The musicians indicate they have the parts and are ready to play. With just a head nod, Chester starts to  play. Everything goes beautifully for a few minutes, even when Chester stumbles a bit and almost trips. But during the next chorus, during an especially expressive moment, he actually loses his balance and falls against the piano. He pulls himself up up with some difficulty, peers at the floor, checks his horn, then continues to play without missing more than a few beats. He takes a short, sweet solo, then gestures for the bass to take over. During the bass solo he does some steps while enjoying the music, and flirts with the ladies in the audience. The song’s main theme returns and all goes well until Chester plays a wrong note. He stops playing and looks accusingly at his horn. He picks  something off his mouthpiece and replays the phrase. The band does its best to follow him. But Chester has lost his confidence. He gives the  musicians a sign, and they break into a few phrases of “Goodnight Ladies.” Everyone puts on a smile, and Chester waves goodbye…

Readers, I can’t begin to tell you how thrilled I am to share a new video by Carla Bley, with a band that includes her WattXtraWatt Family – husband Steve Swallow on bass guitar, daughter Karen Mantler on keyboard – plus Chet Doxas on clarinet and tenor saxophone. Bley also provided the plot summary reproduced above.

Doxas entered into the extended family through playing with Swallow in Riverside, the quartet the saxophonist leads jointly with trumpeter Dave Douglas, and has worked sporadically with Bley in Liberation Music Orchestra over the last three years. Riverside played dates with Bley in the U.S., Canada, and Europe in 2017; sadly, a four-night stand planned for the Jazz Standard in October 2020, which was meant to yield a live recording, was derailed by pandemic.

Happily, however, Doxas reports that he and Bley now are working on a project together. “The idea is for different directors to shoot each piece, eventually resulting in a series of short films,” Doxas explained in an email. “The compositions include extensive stage directions and film notes. The handwritten pieces show up in the mail to me unannounced in giant envelopes. Every time one shows up, it feels like Christmas!” (This specific film, he adds, “is not part of the solo series, but rather a standalone composition for film that Carla wanted to do.”)

Extending the holiday notion, I’m grateful to Doxas, and to Matt Merewitz of Fully Altered Media, for this early gift—one I’m elated to share. And should you need something to listen to while you’re waiting for Bley’s new project to emerge, I’ll gladly commend The New National Anthem, on which the Riverside quartet plays Bley compositions alongside companionable originals by Douglas, Doxas, and Swallow, and Life Goes On, Bley’s newest playful ECM recording with Swallow and saxophonist Andy Sheppard, which might seem as if it came out a long time ago, but actually was issued on Valentine’s Day of this endless, timeless year.

Stream On

Nicole Mitchell (Photograph: Aimee Obidzinski/University of Pittsburgh)

All times listed at Eastern Standard Time.

Coandă Trio
Thursday, Dec. 10, 3:30pm

Originally billed as a duo gig for saxophonist Tim Berne and drummer Nasheet Waits, who released a potent duo CD, The Coandă Effect, in April, this matinee now features a trio completed by nimble bassist Scott Colley, performing live at SEEDS: Brooklyn in Prospect Heights for an online audience. ($15; viewcy.com)

National Sawdust New Works Commission Concerts
Thursday, Dec. 10, and Friday, Dec. 11, 5pm

Full disclosure: I had the distinct privilege of participating in the panel of composers, performers, and advocates that selected the 20 exceptional young composers whose commissioned works will be introduced in these concerts. Thursday’s program features the National Sawdust Ensemble, the eclectic, versatile house band led by cellist Jeffrey Zeigler; Friday’s bill showcases the JACK Quartet, about whom more below. Also coming up from National Sawdust (more disclosure: my former employer): Con Alma, an ambitious, globe-spanning collaborative project created by composer Paola Prestini and singer-songwriter Magos Herrera, has its live premiere on Sunday, Dec. 13, at 7pm. (Free; live.nationalsawdust.org)

JACK Frontiers Festival
Friday, Dec. 10, Saturday, Dec. 11, and Sunday, Dec. 12

The restlessly inquisitive JACK Quartet has just announced details of the first two projects in its multi-month festival, celebrating creativity that pushes at boundaries and conventions. Friday brings the world premiere of This Longing Vessel, a video installation work by JACK Studio recipient artist Elliot Reed, hosted by MoMA PS1. Then on Saturday and Sunday, JACK is featured in excerpts from Beautiful Trouble, a multimedia work by Natacha Diels, which will travel throughout Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx on a billboard truck; specific stops are listed on the JACK website. (Details vary; see jackquartet.com)

Nate Wooley
Friday, Dec. 11, 8pm

Breaking with the combative nature of his Battle Pieces project, trumpeter, bandleader, and composer Nate Wooley introduces his newest compositional strategem: Mutual Aid Music, in which a doubled group of improvisers associated with jazz and contemporary classical practices strives for harmonious accord. Having been granted a preview of this new project, I can attest readily to its arresting beauty. (Free with suggested donation; roulette.org)

BlackBox Ensemble
Saturday, Dec. 12, 8pm

Themes of loss and mourning resound in a program titled “Elegy,” during which BlackBox Ensemble will share new compositions by Juhi Bansal, Carlos Simon, Yaz Lancaster, Brittney J. Green, and Jessica Mays, as performed and recorded at the Church of St. John’s in New York City’s West Village. ($10 suggested donation; register at Eventbrite)

Catchfire Collective
Saturday, Dec. 12, 7:30pm

Greenboro, NC-based Catchfire Collective presents a concert titled “Falling Up: The World Upside Down,” which includes Openwork, knotted object // Trellis in Bloom //Lightning Ache by Call for Scores winner inti figgis-vizueta; a world premiere by Robin McLaughlin; and further pieces by Jonathan Bailey Holland, Robert Honstein, and Nico Muhly. (Free; register at Eventbrite)

Ninth Planet
Saturday, Dec. 12, 10pm

Another piece by inti figgis-vizueta, Form the Fabric, is featured in “On Being,” a concert by the Bay Area ensemble Ninth Planet. Also on the bill are works by Angelica Negrón, Jessie Cox, and Darian Donovan Thomas. (Free; YouTube)

Sunday, Dec. 13, 5pm

New York City composers collective ICEBERG New Music is joined by Unheard-of Ensemble for a “new-music happy hour.” Composers Alex Burtzos, Yu-Chun Chien, Will Healy, Lucy McKnight, Jonathan Russ, and Harry Stafylakis will chat with Unheard-of players about their year-long collaboration, which comes to fruition in a concert streaming on YouTube as soon as the reception wraps up. (Free; register at icebergnewmusic.com)

“Gradient Logics: Free Improvisation and Music of Anthony Braxton”
Sunday, Dec. 13, 10pm

In a concert presented by the Herb Alpert School of Music at CalArts, Tim Feeney and Bonnie Whiting lead the CalArts Percussion Ensemble, University of Washington Percussion Ensemble, and CalArts Improvisation Ensemble in two realizations of Anthony Braxton’s Compositions No. 221, juxtaposed with Composition No. 246, further Braxton pieces, and free improvisation. (Free; YouTube)

International Contemporary Ensemble
Tuesday, Dec. 15, 7pm

Nicole Mitchell, a celebrated improvisng flutist, composer, bandleader, and educator, collaborates with members of the International Contemporary Ensemble and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, in a new version of her 2017 work Inescapable Spiral, reconfigured for a fusion of recorded and live performances by distanced players, mixed live online. (Free; register at Eventbrite)

Adam Tendler
Wednesday, Dec. 16, 7pm

Pianist Adam Tendler, a daring, insightful interpreter of the modern canon and brand-new works, sets the clock back to take on one of the towering classics of the Romantic repertoire, Robert Schumann’s Carvaval. That canonical piece shares the bill with the world premiere of a major new work by Christian Wolff, FANTAIL (22 pieces for a pianist), the movements of which Tendler will interleave with the Schumann piece. ($15; kaufmanmusiccenter.org)

John McCowen
Wednesday, Dec. 16, 8pm

John McCowen, a composer and performer drawn to the darker extremes of the clarinet spectrum, completes his Issue Project Room residency with the debut of Low Quartet, in which he performs alongside cellists Leila Bordreuil and Lester St. Louis and bassist Zach Rowden. (Free with suggested donation; issueprojectroom.org)